An Interview with Billy Sherwood of YES

Kevin Keating
Billy Sherwood of YES (Photo: Kevin Keating)
Almost exactly a year after playing Saratoga's Mountain Winery -- our review can be found here -- the newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers', YES, will return to the SF Bay Area when they hit the Warfield Theater on Friday, September 1st. As of this writing, tickets are still available here. This years' "Yestival" tour will feature their greatest hits across the bands' first 10 albums. Recently, we had a chance to speak with Billy Sherwood about the tour, life on the road, and more that you can read or listen to below. Special thanks go out to über Yes fans Sergio De Acha, who conducted the interview with Billy, and Mike Tiano for background info on the band.
Billy Sherwood of YES (Photo: Kevin Keating)

Sergio DeAcha: Thank you so much for taking the time. I’ve been dying to talk to you. So this is great.

Billy Sherwood: Cool man. Thanks, well…

Sergio DeAcha: So last time I saw you was at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga (California). So you’re going to be, you guys are going to be there I believe next month.

Billy Sherwood: Yes.

Sergio DeAcha: And so excited that I get to see you play again.

Billy Sherwood: Cool.

Sergio DeAcha: I had a chance to meet you backstage. And I got to tell you one of the things that I enjoyed quite a bit about seeing you play, that was the first time I saw you play post, obviously, Chris.

And I got to tell you, your sound was phenomenal. You’ve been able to be really flexible with your – the different variety of sounds that you’re getting out of your instrument. So can you tell us a little bit about your approach to setting those and programming those sounds, as you’re going into these different tours?

Billy Sherwood: Yes. Well a big part of the sound is the bass itself, of course, which is Spector basses, which I use. And then its kind of a combination from there of Line 6 pedal boards that are where all the effects come from.

Various envelope filters and distortions, choruses and things. And then it all comes out -- I run all that through an X32 console, digital console. Where I can kind of take that blend and refine it with some EQ and compression and whatnot.

And then that all spits out to front of house and it also goes to my amplifier rig on stage, which is Tech 21. That I have a set up two 4 x 10s and the rig is stereo which is nice. And that combination of stuff gives you that driving Squier-y kind of tone that I’ve always been drawn to.

Sergio DeAcha: Right. A lot of fans are asking, I think they probably posted this or asked you in some shape or form. What are you doing on your iPad?

Billy Sherwood: The iPad, one of them is for the console so that I can mix myself in monitors. Then I have an in-ear mix coming from the same console that I send the sound of front of house out of. So it serves a dual purpose for me. And the other iPad is for various lyrics and/or charts and things that are a little hard to remember on the fly.

Sergio DeAcha: Got you.

Billy Sherwood: So it’s a combination of those two together, that works quite well.

Sergio DeAcha: Wonderful.

Billy Sherwood: Rather than having stuff all over the ground. And having to run back to the console to change things I can do it all from right there. I don’t have to move around.

Sergio DeAcha: Right, you know for us Yes fans that have been seeing you guys perform over the decades. Any little minutia like this that we see that’s new its always interesting right?

Billy Sherwood: Yes, it’s cool.

Sergio DeAcha: So thanks for sharing that….

Billy Sherwood: I love the high tech stuff.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes.

Billy Sherwood: Yes.

Sergio DeAcha: So tell us about Yestival. How is it going? And what can the Yes fans expect out of the band that perhaps they haven’t seen or heard thus far?

Billy Sherwood: It’s been going really, really well. Carl Palmer just kicking major bootie every night and bringing down the house. And then Todd Rundgren is of course phenomenal with his band.

And Kasim Sulton playing bass on there, he’s one of my heroes from way back. And their band is fantastic. And then we play and we do this chronological set starting from the first album. Right up thru “Machine Messiah” (iTunes) which on the Drama (iTunes) album.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes.

Billy Sherwood: And it’s a mixture of material leading up to there. And you get a nice sense of Yes development. And the sound, you know how things changed in the writing along the way. It’s quite a unique set. People seem to be enjoying it.

Sergio DeAcha: Right, right. And tell me, what was the criteria that you guys followed when you were trying to select the set list? Because what’s obvious is that there’s nothing from Open Your Eyes, which you were a part of.

And so help us understand that. And of course there was Heaven & Earth (iTunes). So what was the decision as to why not to include those albums for example?

Billy Sherwood: Well we only had 90 minutes.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes.

Billy Sherwood: As opposed to when we play by ourselves where we have 2 hours and 20, normally. So in this case it was just a matter of how far can we go in 90 minutes. And that seemed to take us to the Drama record really. So that’s kind of the answer to that. There’s just, we're limited by time really.

Sergio DeAcha: Right.

Billy Sherwood: You know?

Sergio DeAcha: Got you. So tell us about, you guys are performing now with two drummers. And given the synergistic relationship between bass player and drummers, tell me about how are you adjusting your playing to accommodate the different two styles? And what was the decision for which songs Alan [White] would play and which ones Dylan [Howe] would play, for example?

Billy Sherwood: Well they sorted that stuff out and I just kind of went along with the program. But I’m so used to playing with Alan for now, for so many years not only in Yes, when I was in the band before. But also we were in CIRCA together and Conspiracy.

So playing with Alan is very, very easy and something very natural. Dylan’s playing has been really, really good inside the band and its just a different feel, and there is some adjusting that has to go down to that.

But, for the most part on this tour because of the way the stage is set up, I don’t have the advantage of being able to stand next to Dylan, cause of my cables. So basically just kind of head down and get to the end, you know? But it’s all feeling really good.

Sergio DeAcha: Right, right. Good, good. So now that you’ve been with the band for some time now are you exercising any creative freedom with Chris’s parts? I know that there could be a situation where you go -- you want to be religious about things. And then you as a producer…

Billy Sherwood: Yes

Sergio DeAcha: With all your experience producing. I’m sure there are things that are coming to mind that hey it would be good to do it this way instead.

Billy Sherwood: Yes

Sergio DeAcha: How are you working that thru in your mind?

Billy Sherwood: Well there’s definitely certain pieces and areas that you have to maintain the script so to speak. And you want to stay on point with all the things that we’re all used to and know and love that Chris did.

But then there are other elements within all the music where there’s a bit of improvising that can go on. So, it’s just a matter of trying to be hasty and find those moments, and pay respect where respect is due. And then kind of do my own thing inside of that.

You know so, it’s something that kind of has come naturally to me because I know Chris’s stuff so well. So I know those areas where I can take a little liberty. And I know the areas where to kind of pull back and stay on the, on script so to speak. So its been kind of easy. But there is a lot of room for improv.

Sergio DeAcha: Got it.

Billy Sherwood: Inside of this stuff. Which is kind of nice.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes. So speaking of Chris. You guys obviously spent some time during your Conspiracy days. Fans want to know if there’s anything left over from those sessions that might see the light of day at some point?

Billy Sherwood: Unfortunately, not. Everything we ever did Chris and I found a home. So all the material that was cut for Conspiracy was cut to order. So to speak.

And there’s really no hidden tracks lying around that I can recall. I’d have to look in all the archives to confirm that a hundred percent. But I’m pretty sure that everything that we’ve ever worked on has found a home.

Sergio DeAcha: Right, got it. So you guys are going to be performing in the Mountain Wine -- actually at the Warfield in San Francisco next month. And…

Billy Sherwood: Yes.

Sergio DeAcha: So of course our Bay area fans want to understand when you guys think about San Francisco and the Bay Area whether it’s the Mountain Winery in Saratoga when you perform there. Or in San Jose, or in San Francisco, what is the perception of the band about the Bay Area?

Billy Sherwood: Well for me as a Californian, I love going up there. Anytime that opportunity presents itself. And its just a beautiful part of the country. And San Francisco is a really unique city in its own right.

As LA is, and so it’s nice to get up there and feel the different, sort of vibe of the city. But it’s just gorgeous, it’s just a beautiful place to be. And I love being there, so, you know anytime as I said I can get up there I am into it. So I am looking forward to it again.

Sergio DeAcha: That’s great. What is your typical day when you’re on tour? For example, you arrive lets just say to San Francisco, what is that day going to look like for you?

Billy Sherwood: Well they all sort of start to blend in together, these gigs.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes.

Billy Sherwood: And they become kind of a blur. But you remember the venue and you remember the city that your in first and foremost, by you know just the experience of the city. But the travel days are pretty much all the same.

Where we just get up and take a plane some where or as is the case today, we’re say traveling in this big bus. Heading from where ever we just were in Philly, is where we were. And were now going to Foxwoods Connecticut. So a lot of the day is spent traveling.

And you get to the hotel, and you have a couple hours to just sort of refresh. And grab a shower and bring yourself back to life and play the gig. Which is always, you know your totally energized to play the gig at that point. And then rinse and repeat.

And start that cycle all over again. I just finished an Asia tour cause I replaced [John] Wetton in the same way that Chris asked me to join Yes when he fell ill.

Wetton did the same thing. So I just finished forty five shows with Asia opening for Journey. And you know so I’ve been out here now for, I feel like I’m on a mission to Mars at this point.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes.

Billy Sherwood: Quite a while. And there’s still quite a while to go. But I love what I do and it’s a blessing to be able to do it. So I’m not complaining, that’s for sure.

Sergio DeAcha: So tell us about, so we get to see guys interact musically on stage. What is happening socially when you guys are on tour?

Billy Sherwood: You know we all like each other. So we hang out, and go to dinner together. Or you know I’ve seen the guys at breakfast, and then you know we socialize together.

So it’s nice. And we all enjoy each others company and makes the touring much more easy when its like that. And same was said for Asia you know, it was a lot of fun. So it’s just a lot of fun hanging out with your friends, traveling around the country.

Sergio DeAcha: Got it. And tell me a little bit about the personalities do you have anyone in the band that is the jokester? Anyone that’s more of the philosopher? Are there, tell us a little bit about that.

Billy Sherwood: Well I guess they think I’m a joker.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes.

Billy Sherwood: I like to keep the vibe light if possible. But it’s -- I mean at the end of the day everyone’s really serious about the music that’s for sure. But there’s a lot of laughter and observation that goes on along the way. And we're always very hypercritical of our own performances.

So we’ll talk about shop for a bit in the truck as well to make sure whatever might have been a little sideways in one show gets tightened up on another. But it’s all very casual and very relaxed. And very fun. There’s no, no weird vibes at all. It’s a pleasure.

Sergio DeAcha: Great, great. Billy I've got two more questions for you. I’m going to ask you one question that I asked Chris Squire way back during the The Ladder (iTunes) days. When the guys were recording The Ladder, and I want you to take maybe five seconds to think about it before you answer. And the question is what does “Yes” mean to you?

Billy Sherwood: Well for me it goes back to being twelve years old. And discovering this band and falling in love with the music. And following this band, you know thru the following decades. And just, it was always my favorite band.

I mean I have listened to a lot of other music, and you know Genesis, Gentle Giant, UK, Utopia, XTC, I have a whole huge list of things that I love to listen to. Because I love all kinds of music but Yes was always my favorite. And as fate had it, my roads crossed paths with theirs.

And ended up joining and working with these guys, in ways that I never imagined along the way. And more recently in ways that I really never imagined which was Chris asking me to take his spot.

Which was probably the heaviest thing that’s ever happened in my life slash career. And it’s just, its just a very surreal, surreal experience, you know. Very, very surreal.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes, I can imagine. So I will tell you what Chris responded. It was hilarious, and it was interesting. And it just gave you some idea….

Billy Sherwood: As he was.

Sergio DeAcha: Yes of course. So I asked him the same question. I asked him to think about it before he responded. And the response was “it’s a job”. That, that’s all he said. “It’s a job.” And he started to laugh. You know.

Billy Sherwood: Yes well he was being coy there. Cause I know Chris and his passion was Yes -- that was his world. So it was, he might have said that but I know it’s, it was a lifestyle really, you know. And of course a job because it is a job to get out of here and travel around and play.

I mean it looks very romantic from the outside looking in. But a lot of the hard work is done in the travel. And getting from to and from various places.

But at the end of the day it’s always a blessing to play music. But I know he loved doing what he did. It may have been a job, he might have said that but I know that he couldn’t live a day with out it. That’s for sure.

Sergio DeAcha: Right. Ok here’s one for you. Chris had a, you know his typical solo during “Wurm” (iTunes) where he would do his little dance across the stage.

Billy Sherwood: Yes.

Sergio DeAcha: When are you going to that? The crowd would go wild if you have your choreography.

Billy Sherwood: Well there’s certain trademark things that I am trying to not do, that Chris did because there is a part of me that feels like it might be a little cheeky and a little too strange.

So I try to do my own thing in my own way in that regard. And hope that it works because I don’t want to, I don’t want to cross any sacred lines. So to speak.

Sergio DeAcha: Right, no I get it. I get it. I could tell you that the fans would probably just go nuts. They would just love it. So any way. So thank you so much for your time. I can’t wait to see you guys at the Warfield in San Francisco.

Billy Sherwood: All right.

Sergio DeAcha: I hope I get a chance to see you back stage. And say hello.

Billy Sherwood: That would be great.

Sergio DeAcha: But have a great time OK.

Billy Sherwood: Thank you so much, I appreciate it man.

Sergio DeAcha: Thank you so much.

Billy Sherwood: Take care bro.

Sergio DeAcha: Bye, bye to you too.

Again, don't miss this show at the Warfield on September 1st, if you live in the Bay Area and if not, check out their site for full details on the remainder of their tour.

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